The Great Persecution and the Final Victory, Part 2

The History of Christianity #76

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is 2 Timothy 3:12 which reads: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Charles Spurgeon. He said: “Suffering saints are living seed.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Great Persecution and the Final Victory” (Part 2) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The first difficulties probably arose in the army. There was no general agreement among Christians regarding military service, for, while most church leaders of the time said that Christians should not be soldiers, there were many believers among the legions. In any case, around the year 295 AD a number of Christians were condemned to death, some for refusing to join the army, and others for trying to leave it. Galerius viewed this attitude of Christians toward military service as a serious danger, for it was conceivable that at a critical moment Christians in the army would refuse to obey orders. Therefore, as a measure required for military morale, Galerius convinced Diocletian that all Christians should be expelled from the legions. Diocletian’s edict did not require any additional penalty for Christians besides expulsion from the ranks of the military. But in some areas, probably due to an excess of zeal on the part of some officers who did not wish to see their ranks thinned, there were attempts to force Christian soldiers to deny their faith. The result was a number of executions, all of them in the army of Danube, under the command of Galerius.

After these events, Galerius seems to have become increasingly prejudiced against Christians, and in 303 AD he finally convinced Diocletian to issue a new edict against them. At least, this is what historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us, for Eusebius himself made every effort not to blame the other emperors at the time – of which Diocletian was one – for the persecutions. Even then, the purpose was not to kill Christians, but to remove them from positions of responsibility within the empire. It was then ordered that Christians be dismissed from any government position, and that all Christian buildings and books be destroyed. At the beginning, there were no sterner measures. But soon the conflict grew worse, for many Christians refused to turn over their sacred writings, and in such cases they were tortured and condemned to death.

Then fire broke out twice in the imperial palace. Galerius accused the Christians of having set it, out of revenge for the destruction of their meeting places and the burning of their books. Some Christian writers of the period suggest that Galerius himself was responsible for the fires, which he had set in order to blame the Christians. Whatever the case may be, Diocletian’s fury was not slow in coming, and it was decreed that all Christians in the imperial court must offer sacrifice before the gods. Prisca and Valeria compiled, but the Grand Chamberlain Dorotheus and several others suffered martyrdom. Throughout the empire houses where Christians met and sacred writings were being set to the torch, and there were areas where overzealous officials followed the emperor’s example and put Christians to death. The only area where there seems to have been a slight respite was the territory under the rule of Constantius Chlorus, where persecution was limited to tearing down some church buildings – at least, this is what we are told by Eusebius, who wished to present Constantius in the best possible light.

The situation grew worse. There were disturbances in some areas, and Diocletian became convinced that Christians were conspiring against him. He then decreed, first, that all the leaders of the churches be arrested and, somewhat later, that all Christians must offer sacrifice to the gods.

Thus was unleashed the most cruel of all the persecutions that the ancient church had to endure.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Great Persecution and the Final Victory.

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